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Officials tout 'safe haven' success

But critics call new law harmful

The first baby to be dropped off under a new state law that lets parents abandon newborns without fear of prosecution was left last week at a hospital in the Merrimack Valley, officials announced yesterday.

Few details were released about the mother or the healthy, 6- day-old infant girl, who was left last Wednesday at an unidentified hospital, said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.

Monteiro said the young mother recently made arrangements through a state hotline, gave birth, then surrendered the baby to the hospital staff.

Her decision to give up her child rekindled the debate over the program's merits.

While adoption advocates criticized the law yesterday as misguided, state and city officials touted the policy as an effective safety net for desperate mothers who can't or won't care for their newborns.

"We've proven that this bill works," said Representative Barry R. Finegold, an Andover Democrat and longtime proponent of the law. "For all those naysayers, we proved this law is working and was needed."

He added that the state would not give out information about the mother. "We're trying to provide a private place," he said.

The state took the baby into custody last Wednesday, the day she was born, and on Saturday placed her into a preadoptive foster home, Monteiro said.

"We are pleased that a life was saved," said Monteiro, who noted that the mother arrived at the hospital well versed in the law. "If you can't keep your baby, you can keep your baby safe."

The safe haven law, which the Legislature passed in October, allows parents to leave their newborn babies in a hospital, fire station, or police station up until a week after the birth, without any legal repercussions. Massachusetts is the 47th state to enact such a measure.

At a press conference yesterday at a West Roxbury firehouse, where city offi- cials put a black safehaven sticker on a window of the front door, Mayor Thomas M. Menino described the law as a "savior for young children."

" 'Safe haven' is about mothers in tragic situations and helping them to get their child safe," he said.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan Donaldson Adoption Institute, said the law has created misguided public policies.

"The money we're spending to promote legal abandonment can be spent telling women to get prenatal care and counseling," he said. "We're telling them to abandon their child. They appear to be inducing some women who've never thought to abandon a baby to do so."

City Councilor John Tobin, who introduced the safe haven law at the City Council two years ago, dismissed Pertman's criticism as "baloney."

"We're giving the mother an option to keep her baby alive. Is it a better idea to put a baby, wrap it up and dump it into a trash can?" Tobin said. "The bill worked last week, but I hope it's never used again."

To help the effort, a publicity campaign is underway, with public service announcements, billboards, and signs to be displayed throughout subways, high schools, and other public facilities.

Babies can be left at designated locales bearing the safe haven logo.

The staff at the haven, which is trained to take in infants, contacts DSS.

The safe-haven hotline, which advises pregnant women about their options, receives about a hundred calls a week, officials said.

Globe correspondent Caroline Louise Cole contributed to this report.

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